Cure, for the Common Killer

Cure came to my attention recently thanks to Bill Hader (listed it in his Top 10 of the 90’s for IndieWire), but I am shocked I didn’t come to it earlier. 

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, his western breakthrough horror film, Pulse, was always on my radar, but his more domestic drama Tokyo Sonata is my only other experience with his work. That said, his association with Drive My Car’s Ryusuke Hamaguchi and my love for that film only got me as close to Kurosawa as learning they worked on a film together recently (Wife of a Spy) and had a mentor/pupil relationship.

Even more surprising to me on how I hadn’t heard about Cure is that it should firmly be mentioned in the same breath as the great detective/serial movies of the last 30+ years. Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Memories of a Murder, Zodiac, Cure. 

Memories of a Murder is the most recent addition to that small canon, partially/mostly because of it’s director’s (Bong Joon-ho) recent success with Parasite. But Kurosawa’s Cure is even better by my estimation of those two films out of east Asia, with Cure also being potentially the most unsettling of the group. The wrinkle that there is something… beyond the limits of (most) humans possibly taking place might suggest Cure is slightly askewed from these other films which are far more rooted in reality, but Kurosawa does an amazing job of grounding the elevated parts of this story in a real corner of our world of medicine; leaving us wondering if this could really happen all the same.

Cure starts off as all these stories do. There’s a murder, there’s a detective, but in Cure, the perpetrator of this specific crime is quickly apprehended. Hell, the true “killer” themselves is in police custody for much of the film! The twist is that our lead detective, Takabe (an incredible Kōji Yakusho), knows this is now the third identical murder, carried out by three different individuals, with no connections whatsoever and that have no idea why they did what they did. It’s pretty fucked up, but Kurosawa isn’t interested in hiding who is behind all this death, he introduces us to him in the next scene (an equally incredible Masato Hagiwara).

***Spoilers for Cure***

While Kurosawa isn’t shy about showing us who the killer is, that doesn’t mean we will understand his motives. Hagiwara plays our killer (who we will come to discover is a student named Mamiya), and his character and performance leaves us reeling for something to grasp onto. To understand why he would make someone commit such heinous crimes, but that answer never really comes. Appearing as if they have amnesia/short term memory loss, Mamiya spins in circles, frustrating, entertaining and/or befuddling those he comes in contact with, before snapping into a trance like clarity, transfixing his partner for the moment. 

Kurosawa bifurcates the plot between “killer” and detective, Takabe finding dead bodies and bewildered murderers every step of the way. Kurosawa thankfully finds humor between Takabe and his partner on this case, a psychologist named Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), as the two try and crack what the hell is going on with all of these murders. Hagiwara has an aloof edge of humor to him as well, while becoming terrifying all the same as we are slowly revealed to more and more of his method with each new victim he entrances. All of this is happening while Kurosawa ratchets up the tension as Takabe get’s closer and closer to catching Mamiya through the interrogation of his victims, while the “killer” ensnares new pawns at an even more rapid pace themselves. 

Then, halfway (or so) through the movie, Mamiya’s cornered, he’s caught. But there is no room for rejoicing. Kurosawa’s script has done such an amazing job of building us up to understand just how our killer’s spell works, to know how Takabe is going to interact with with Mamiya once in custody, and we don’t want these two to talk because we know what will become of Takabe and someone he spends a lot of time with! I think I uttered aloud to myself, “Don’t talk to him!”

While Mamiya’s shenanigans were at the front of our focus, and Takabe’s, the first half of the film also has another thread running through it that is even more elusive (and stays so) and that is what is happening with Takabe’s wife, Fumie (Anna Nakagawa). She actually opens the film, reading a passage from Bluebeard to her doctor, before telekinetically shaking the table in front of her under a look of distress. Something isn’t quite right with her, but that opening moment of fear and mental manipulation turns out to be quite prescient to what follows. The seemingly telekinetic moment grounds the film’s mind bending abilities in some semblance of this world’s reality, while also tipping us off to her fate as a woman who is, in one way or another, killed by her husband. Takabe is portrayed as a loving, caring and supportive husband (if a tad exasperated with her forgetfulness, like Mamiya…) for the first half of the film, but as Mamiya and Takabe spend some time together, she becomes the focus of our killer’s prying.

The back half’s pivot to understanding the “how” of Mamiya’s abilities is never clearly resolved, and that uneasiness is felt by both the viewer and our POV characters as things become more grounded and illusive all the same. Kurosawa takes us into the mind of both Takabe and Sakuma, who both are unequipped to handle the manipulations at play, while also blurring time, space and reality for them and the viewer. The through line of detective work is clear enough around the origins of Mamiya’s particular set of skills, but our ability to understand how it works (or how it’s even working on our detective) keeps us off balance. Kurosawa’s use of repeat imagery, repeated shots and seemingly scenes of deja vu only heighten our experience watching this all unfold.

The finale of the movie continues to remain unknowable, even as every main character is eliminated from the board around Takabe. We don’t even see how Skuma and Fumie perish (blink and you might even miss Fumie being dead), but Takabe’s demeanor of peace at the end of the film is about as unsettling as anything that comes before it. The burden of his wife is lifted, he has slain the killer without consequence and the rollercoaster of tracking down and solving these series of crimes has pulled into the station. But Kurosawa has one last trick up his sleeve, as he leaves us with a shot of a zombie-like waitress grabbing a knife. Is she out to kill after interacting with a compromised Takabe? Is she simply cutting some cake for a guest? Call me an optimist, but I choose the latter. Takabe is at peace and in control, unlike the others who have shown psychic manipulation in the film, but the air of doubt certainly lingers in your mind.

Kurosawa’s Cure is not to be missed. It’s great for all of the unnerving energy above, but also because it’s a technical achievement at every turn. Full of long takes and brilliant acting, his control over every piece of this film is a rare feat. He pulls you in with curiosity, lulls you with some humor, flashes the violence to unsettle you, before your enveloped with unease and terror through the end. Criterion is making this masterpiece as available as it’s ever been here in the states, do yourself a favor and add it to your canon of great films; no matter the genre.

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